When I lived in Oakland, from 2005 to 2010, there was a decent amount of street art, but nowhere near as much as there is now. When I visited West Oakland and downtown this past weekend, I was blown away by the explosion of murals and graffiti. I used to frequent these areas when I lived in Oakland, but in the past few years when visiting, I haven’t spent much time in these neighborhoods.
I used to hang in West Oakland a lot because my partner was a metal artist who worked out of a large co-op in that neighborhood. Back then, the neighborhood was a mix of industrial and low-income housing, as well as blocks of dilapidated houses, abandoned buildings, and trash. It was an interesting place and not a very safe one: There were many break-ins and robberies, and there were bullet holes in the walls of buildings. On the plus side, people without a lot of money could still afford to live there–both long-time neighborhood residents and many struggling artists and “makers.” The influx of money was creeping along slowly then, with a couple condo buildings going up here and there but very few new businesses in the area.
When I drove through West Oakland yesterday, and I could hardly believe the changes since 2010. There were street art murals everywhere–too many to count. The sidewalk along Mandela Parkway was all fixed up with nice landscaping and fancy streetlamps. What used to be deserted streets were full of joggers and walkers (mostly white). There were new condo and apartment buildings as far as the eye could see, as well as coffee shops boasting organic coffee and WiFi.
Feelings About Gentrification
I have mixed feelings about the changes to West Oakland (and the whole Bay Area). On the one hand, I love public art and organic coffee. I’d rather live in a clean and safe apartment than a dilapidated hovel or an illegal warehouse. I like being places with vibrant business and people out and about. I have had a lot of privilege that has allowed me to live in places like these through most of my life.
But, that said, I wish that a neighborhood could grow and evolve without getting so expensive that the former residents (particularly low-income residents and people of color) can’t afford to stay. I’m not an expert on economics, but I imagine that federal, state, and local governments have to put specific programs in place to make this happen–leaving it up to the free market typically results in the wealthy winning out.
I did a little research on gentrification in Oakland and West Oakland in particular. After World War II, West Oakland became a thriving arts district and cultural haven for African-Americans, boasting many blues and jazz venues, as well as other businesses. However, economic changes starting in the 1950s and intensifying in subsequent decades led to the gradual deterioration of the neighborhood. Public projects damaging to the area’s fabric (such as the razing of homes to build the train station) also contributed to the area’s decline.
Regarding more recent changes to West Oakland, according to one article, “[Long-time residents] say newcomers are “Columbusing” Oakland—appropriating the city without any regard for the people who were here building community long before Oakland was the “it” place to move to. Others are happy to see changes, such as bike lanes, street repairs, and new businesses, come in. However, one thing that I can’t imagine anyone is happy about (except landlords) is the price of rent. A search of Craiglist revealed that rents in West Oakland are generally $2000 to $4000 for a one bedroom. Rents in the Oakland neighborhood where I lived, near Lake Merritt are similar, having doubled and tripled in the past 10 years. I would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment there now.
… Back to the Art
I could go on about gentrification. But to go back to the art: I was thrilled to see so much public art in West Oakland and downtown, and that inspired me to read more about that, too.
The Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP) has been around since 2005 and has been a major force in the creation of murals around Oakland. The nonprofit aims to beautify and cultivate healthy communities through public art.
The History of Mural Arts
An article on CRP’s website gives a fascinating history of mural art. The article chronicles the art from the earliest-known murals in France (created in 30,000 B.C.) to the early 20th-century Mexican mural arts movement associated with Diego Rivera to the Chicano art movement and African-American community mural movement of the 1960s to the 1970s and 1980s graffiti culture of Philadelphia and New York to contemporary aerosol and mural art.
Commodification of Street Art
One thing I hadn’t thought of (brought to my attention by another article on the CRP website) is the commodification of street art by private sponsors. Some developers see graffiti and other street art murals as “must-have amenities” for their properties. On the one hand, I think it’s great that these artists get paid for their work. But, I can also see the problem pointed out by CRP: Private mural sponsors may promote a gentrification agenda that displaces low-income residents, including artists, and fail to engage the community in creating the art.
More Mural Projects in Oakland
I saw several articles about the Oakland Mural Festival in 2018, which resulted in several new public works in the Jack London Square area. The Festival’s website says the event was planned to “use mural arts to engage East Bay youth, local Bay Area artists, and the Oakland community through beautification and placemaking activities … and to call attention to social issues, honor the legacy of Oakland’s historically industrial waterfront, and celebrate Oakland’s cultural identity.”
I’ve always been drawn to public art, particularly graffiti art. I’ll have to make some more trips to Oakland to take more photos of these beautiful creations.